2015: The tech year in cartoons

From renewed hostilities in the debate over H-1B visas to Apple and Microsoft elbowing into each other's markets, here's a look at some of the year's biggest IT stories from the pen of Computerworld's editorial cartoonist, John Klossner.

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January: We have met the enemy, and he is us

It seems that security is always at or near the top of the list of things that keep IT leaders awake at night. But while headlines would lead us to believe that CIOs and CISOs are spending the wee hours in search of technological ways to prevent data breaches and keep systems up and running 99.999% of the time, the truth may be different. It's more likely that they're trying to figure out ways to change human behavior.

As the year opened, Computerworld's Patrick Thibodeau reported that human error is the "common point of failure" in just about every IT outage or breach. Yes, people are responsible in some way for most IT disasters.

In its 2014 Cyber Security Intelligence Index, IBM found "human error" to be a contributing factor in 95% of all incidents investigated. And an Uptime Institute analysis of 20 years of abnormal incident data from its members revealed that human error is to blame for more than 70% of all data center outages.

While those stats suggest that more security awareness training might be called for, vendors and IT professionals have looked into reducing the role people play in managing systems by using technologies such as artificial intelligence, predictive analytics and machine learning.

However, as the cartoon in the January issue of our digital magazine suggested, some techies might be wishing for a way to take their colleagues out of the equation altogether.

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February: Docker's growth contained

Through most of 2014, it was smooth sailing for Docker. The startup rode a wave of hype all the way to the first stable release of its open-source containerization software in June 2014, held the first ever DockerCon that month, and announced a series of partnerships and integrations with the likes of Microsoft, Red Hat, Google, Amazon Web Services and VMware.

As 2014 drew to a close, Docker claimed that more than 71,379 apps were Docker-ready. But entering 2015, it became clear that Docker perhaps wasn't fully ready for enterprise use and was no longer the only game in town -- CoreOS had released an alternative containerization product called Rocket in December 2014.

Docker's claim to fame was not that it had invented containerization, but that it made containers easier to use and more efficient. One drawback was that an app that's packaged up in a Docker container is great for portability, but it's essentially just sitting there.

Replication, scalability, resiliency and security all require help from tools from other companies -- a fact whimsically portrayed in the cartoon in the February issue of our digital magazine.

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March: Happy birthday, H-1B?

The H-1B visa program turned 25 in 2015, and while no milestone is needed to spark a renewal of hostilities in the debate over this perennially controversial topic, the temporary work visa program was especially prominent in the headlines this year.

In two cases that garnered quite a bit of attention, IT workers at Southern California Edison and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts were laid off and their jobs went to H-1B visa holders from other countries. In some instances, the outgoing employees were asked to train their replacements.

With a new H-1B reform bill making its way through Congress, one of the most controversial elements of the 1990 immigration act that created the H-1B visa program is a loophole that allows employers to do an end-run around the provision that makes it illegal to fire people and directly replace them with H-1B holders. Instead of hiring replacements directly, an employer can contract the work out to a third-party service provider -- and leave it to the contractor to hire H-1B holders to do the work once done by the folks being laid off, as the cartoon in the March issue of our digital magazine points out.

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April: Smartphones go to work

Smartphone makers started to go after the enterprise market with gusto in 2015, making their products available with a slew of third-party productivity and management apps.

Samsung joined the party in April with the release of its Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge. Praised by reviewers for their good looks, Samsung's new phones also had plenty to offer people who want to use them on the job, including software from the likes of Google, BlackBerry, Oracle, Citrix and Microsoft.

While Samsung may have hoped its Galaxy phones would be welcome in the office, the cartoon in the April issue of our digital magazine playfully envisioned a bigger role for the devices.

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May: Updates to Windows, and to Windows updates

Not only was 2015 the year Microsoft introduced a new operating system, it was also the year the company rolled out a new scheme for updating its operating systems.

Starting with this year's release of Windows 10, the company will no longer come out with a completely new version of Windows every few years and then support it with only minor bug fixes and security patches. Instead, Microsoft is adopting an accelerated release tempo. Its plan is to add incremental features and functionality on a rolling basis. As a result, enterprise IT shops will have to rethink the way they evaluate Microsoft operating systems, since Windows 10 may never really be done.

In some ways, Windows 10 will resemble mobile operating systems, in that it will be continually refreshed and will be considered "additive" -- meaning features will accumulate from one version to the next. Hopefully, only useful features will be added on, and users won't experience the results of the scenario depicted in the cartoon in the May issue of our digital magazine.

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June: In-house developers feel the squeeze from SaaS

There was good news and bad news on the jobs front for software developers in 2015.

The good news: The U.S. Department of Labor reported that the number of software developer jobs had increased by 132,000 in 2014, to 1.235 million. And compensation seemed to be on the rise as well. The bonuses that employers pay to the developers they want to keep increased by a total of 9% in 2013 and 2014, according to Foote Partners, an IT labor research firm. That's about double the rate of increase in bonuses for all IT skills.

The bad news: That rising tide isn't lifting the boats of all application programmers. A survey by IT research firm Computer Economics found that programmers made up just under 20% of enterprise IT staffs this year, compared to just over 22% in 2012. That's not a big decline, but it reverses what was once an upward course.

The downturn could be due in part to the fact that IT shops have less of a need for programmers as they drop in-house systems in favor of software-as-a-service offerings, said John Longwell, vice president of research at Computer Economics.

However, while the number of programming jobs may be declining in enterprise IT shops, there might be new opportunities at providers of hosted services, many of them startups. But it may not be easy to move from an enterprise IT department to a vendor, especially one that's likely to be a startup -- though as the cartoon in the June issue of our digital magazine suggested, employers that are making the move to SaaS might try to put a different kind of spin on the situation.

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July: Microsoft recalculates approach to car tech

Microsoft found itself at a crossroads in the automotive technology business in 2015.

The company had established itself early on as a leader in the in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) market, inking long-term contracts with major automakers like Ford, which has been using the Windows Embedded Automotive platform (formerly Windows CE for Automotive) in its Sync system since 2007.

But that's coming to an end. IVI technology has been going through a major transformation, with automakers moving away from proprietary software to open-source systems or more mobile-oriented platforms. Microsoft has had no new contracts for a while, and Ford announced in 2013 that it would be dropping Windows in favor of BlackBerry's QNX operating system, a more mobile-friendly IVI.

Where will the road take Microsoft now? To the cloud.

The company's focus going forward will less about providing an embedded IVI platform and more about supplying functionality to IVI systems through its Azure cloud service. That could prove to be a good change of course: Analysts note that the platform-agnostic approach could present Microsoft with opportunities to partner with many different companies -- though the cartoon in the July issue of our digital magazine raised some questions about exactly how Microsoft came to the decision to recalculate its route.

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August: Freedom in the cloud

While the rise of SaaS and cloud computing may be curbing the career prospects for in-house developers, enterprise IT shops are finding that they can be faster, more agile and more business-focused if they ditch on-site systems for hosted alternatives.

Freed of the burden of managing physical data centers and dealing with hardware failures, network outages and tedious chores like putting servers into racks, IT leaders at companies that have migrated to the cloud say their teams can spend more time getting new apps into users' hands. Perhaps most important, when a company's technology infrastructure is largely in the cloud, IT can focus on the company's business strategy and build tools that help users carry out the mission.

Of course, a cloud migration doesn't necessarily mean the end of IT involvement in on-site systems altogether. IT still needs ensure that cloud-based systems are secure, for example, and manage integration of hosted systems and those that have to be kept on-premises. But as the cartoon in the August issue of our digital magazine emphasizes, a move to the cloud still leaves IT teams much more flexible than they would be if they had to manage physical data centers.

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September: The specter of ageism roils the H-1B debate

Just when it seemed as though the debate over H-1B visas couldn't grow any more rancorous, a look at government data in 2015 revealed that what's at the heart of the discord could be another issue that sparks anger among IT professionals who fret about the viability of their chosen career: age discrimination.

Middle-aged IT professionals have long complained of subtly, or not-so-subtly, being shown the door so their employers could make room for younger people who make less money and, supposedly, are more familiar with the latest technologies.

But now it appears that the H-1B program could facilitate that process: The short-term work visas go primarily to people who are under 35. According to government data, of all the H-1B applications approved by the U.S. last year, nearly 75% were for people who were 34 years old or younger. Of that group, 38% were 29 years old or younger.

UC Davis professor Norm Matloff, a longtime critic of the H-1B program, put it bluntly: "Employers are hiring younger H-1Bs instead of older U.S. citizens and permanent residents." The cartoon in the September issue of our digital magazine offered a gentler, if no less bleak, take on the situation.

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October: Apple worms its way further into the enterprise

In the summer 2014, the IT world took note as Apple made a clear play for enterprise credibility by signing a deal with IBM. This year, the company made further overtures to the corporate market, first by signing a deal with Cisco, and then by introducing the iPad Pro.

For its part, Cisco pledged to help Apple sell more iPads and iPhones to businesses and to "create a fast lane for iOS business users by optimizing Cisco networks for iOS devices and apps," among other things. But Apple helped itself by unveiling of the iPad Pro and positioning the 12.9-in. tablet as a potential go-to device for business users. The iPad Pro can be ordered with a separate Apple-designed keyboard and stylus (a.k.a. the "Apple Pencil") -- putting it in direct competition with Microsoft's Surface Pro.

And while those features alone could make the iPad Pro businessworthy, Apple has put a lot of energy into debunking the idea that iPads are just for content consumption, asserting that the iPad Pro could enhance worker productivity with features such as a split-screen view that lets users run two apps simultaneously. Is the campaign working? The cartoon in the October issue of our digital magazine suggested that it could be a one-step-at-a-time process.

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November: Microsoft strikes back

Faced with Apple positioning the iPad Pro as a competitor to its Surface Pro tablet, Microsoft countered with the rollout of its Surface Book lineup, a family of five high-end laptops that seemed to be designed to challenge Apple's MacBook Pro and MacBook Air devices.

Selling at Mac-like prices of $1,499 to $2,699, the Surface Book is a keyboard-equipped laptop that can twist into a slate or snap apart entirely to serve as a tablet. And it was no secret that Microsoft had its eye on Apple's share of the high-end hardware market: "Of course we're competing with Apple," declared Panos Panay, Microsoft's top executive for the Surface product line.

But Microsoft's Surface Pro strategy isn't just to go on offense against Apple; there's also a defensive component: With low-end PCs selling at razor-thin margins, analysts speculated that Microsoft decided to start making its own hardware because it's concerned that its OEM partners bail on Windows 10 products.

But if hardware makers do end up getting out of the Windows market, the cartoon in the November issue of our digital magazine posited that the Surface Book lineup might not have enough horsepower to give Apple a run for its money.

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December: Data and insights in the forecast

In a deal that forced headline writers to curb their enthusiasm for "clouds in the forecast" puns, IBM agreed to buy Weather.com and other digital assets of The Weather Company for its Watson IoT unit and its IoT Cloud platform.

The move indicates that IBM sees opportunity in pushing into the cloud and connecting the data stored there with data being collected via the Internet of Things. The company was particularly drawn to The Weather Company's dynamic cloud data platform, which powers its mobile app and can handle 26 billion inquiries a day.

IBM's goal is to use the combined capacity of those technologies and its Watson cognitive computing system to provide useful data to business decision-makers in real time. The approach will likely involve analysis of social media posts to uncover trends, though company exec Joe Cawley emphasized that the point is to deliver "actionable" insights, not "entertaining" ones -- a choice of words deployed playfully in the cartoon in the December issue of our digital magazine.

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About our cartoonist

John Klossner has been drawing editorial cartoons for Computerworld since 1996. His cartoons and drawings have also appeared in a wide variety of other print and electronic publications, including The New Yorker, Barron's, Federal Computer Week and The Wall Street Journal.

John's work can also be seen on his website, www.jklossner.com.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.